How Ethiopia Safeguards Its Native Ancient Grain

Visit any Ethiopian restaurant, and you’re bound to receive a generous serving of injera, a spongy, fermented flatbread commonly found in Ethiopian cuisine.

Increasing in global popularity due to the expanding diaspora and interest in ethnic cuisines, injera is arguably one of the most recognizable African foods on the international scene. Each day, thousands of ready-made pieces are exported from Ethiopia to expats and restaurateurs in the United States, Europe and other African countries. However, it is teff — the grain from which injera is made — that is making ripples in the international health food arena and poised to rival quinoa as the top healthy ancient grain.

Grown by both smallholder and commercial farmers in Ethiopia and some parts of Eritrea, teff is a relatively low-risk, sustainable grain that thrives in both wet sands and dry desert conditions. A staple in many Africans' diets, wholegrain teff is an essential source of calcium, fiber, protein and iron.

While the international food market recognizes whole-grain teff as a nutrient powerhouse, its versatility as a gluten-free grain has piqued the interest of foodies and fostered its expansion beyond East Africa. Recipes using teff as a nontraditional substitute for wheat range from gluten-free pasta and bread to cookies and porridge, and to thicken soups or add texture to salads.

In 2006, years before the rise of quinoa, the Ethiopian government sought to improve domestic food security in a country that, years before, had been plagued by severe famine. It placed an embargo on the exportation of teff grain and teff flour, both which played an important role in overall diet quality. Only cooked teff products (such as injera) could be exported. Despite the ban, traditional practices of growing teff could not meet the demands of the growing population and prices continued to increase.

Although Ethiopia is the largest producer by volume, the embargo has prevented the country from benefitting from the international teff trend, and most of the teff found in U.S. stores is from non-indigenous sources, such as U.S., India, Canada and the Netherlands.

Recognizing the opportunities teff can bring and to obtain much needed foreign currency to improve the overall infrastructure of the country and advance traditional farming procedures, the Ethiopian government lifted the embargo and implemented a pilot program to export teff. The first shipments of Ethiopian teff are projected to begin in January 2016.

In order to safeguard the grain for locals, the pilot will start with 48 commercial farmers commissioned to grow the crop while adhering to strict international standards. Once harvested and milled, the entire product from these farms is projected to represent less than 1 percent of the country’s overall teff production.

The remaining teff will continue to be made available to Ethiopians. Outside of commissioned farms, the ban on teff exportation will continue. As the pilot proceeds and overall teff production improves, the country plans to gradually increase the allotment for exports.

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Cordialis Msora-Kasago
​Cordialis Msora-Kasago, MA, RD, is National Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a California-based registered dietitian of Zimbabwean descent. She is passionate about African diets and the prevention of chronic diseases. Read her blog, The African Pot Nutrition. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.